During a breakout season in 2016, New York Giants safety Landon Collins went from one of the NFL's most promising young defensive players to one of its best overall, an All-Pro.
Dave Merritt, the team's safeties coach, thinks the 23-year-old Collins has room to grow. A lot of room.
On a scale of 1 to 10, Merritt rated Collins a 7 heading into his third season.
That's a seemingly low score for a guy who led the Giants with 125 tackles and added five interceptions, including one for a touchdown, four sacks, 13 passes defended, nine tackles for losses, five quarterback hurries and one fumble recovery.
It was a performance that saw him finish third in voting for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
"Don't get me wrong," Merritt said Wednesday, a day the Giants made their assistant coaches available. "He played out of this world. But I think there is so much room for Landon to improve, mentally as a well as understanding situations in football, as well as technique."
Merritt hopes Collins can continue making the interceptions and 'wow' plays that he came up with last season in helping the Giants go 11-5 and make the playoffs for the first time since 2011. However, the long-time Giants coach says a couple of the interceptions resulted from the ball finding him instead of Collins finding the ball.
"He made the plays last year that he dropped in his rookie year," Merritt said. "Hopefully, he will continue to make those plays if he is in the area."
The one play that sticks out for Merritt is an interception Collins made against the Bengals in early November in a 21-20 win. Collins made an instinctive move, came over the top of the tight end, and picked off the pass.
Merritt said Collins should be able to cover more ground this season because he will have a better knowledge of his own position, allowing him to cheat at times so he can get closer to the play.
The Giants are also stepping up the workload for Collins. He is going to play a quasi-linebacker spot at times, the dime position with six DBs on the field, in addition to being a safety. Merritt also said the coaching staff is considering a fourth position for him.
"He is going to have to make sure he puts his nose in the playbook, so he understands the pieces of the puzzle, where everyone else is around him on the field," Merritt said. "That is where he is going to have to continue to grow."
Collins spent some of the offseason trying to improve his muscle endurance, allowing him to come out of his breaks faster and make more plays. Maybe even more than last season.
"We'll see. We'll see when the season comes," he said. "I'll have a lot of game plan things coming toward me. We'll see how that comes, but I'm looking for the opportunity to make those plays again."
Merritt hesitated when asked how high the ceiling is for Collins, the Alabama product the Giants grabbed with the first pick of the second round in the 2015 draft after making a trade to move up. He believes he could rate as high as 8½ to 9 on a consistent basis.
"That's you are always in the running, possibly, as a player of the year, constantly making Pro Bowls and things like that, being All Pro," Merritt said. "Right now, last year was such a big jump for the kid, and I am proud of him. But that's last year, and I told him that."
Merritt noted that former Giants safety Antrel Rolle had a monster year a few seasons ago and fell off the following season.
"I am trying to make sure he (Collins) doesn't get caught in any kind of trap," Merritt said.
Undetermined is who will start with Collins at safety. Darian Thompson started one game as a rookie last season and then was sidelined with a foot injury. Nat Berhe, who has been bothered by concussions, had two starts. The surprise of last season was free agent Andrew Adams, who stepped in and started 13 games.
While all three are in the running for the second safety spot, Merritt wants someone to win the job because he does not want to rotate his safeties.